Direct Fail

Welcome to Colorado. One of seven states in the country where district attorneys can unilaterally decide when to criminally prosecute kids as adults.

December 2011

After school on October 26, 2009, his mom told him to do chores and bring her a Dr. Pepper. When he didn’t—and she didn’t stop bothering him—he went to his room, picked up a family gun he’d hidden there, and shot her in the head. But it didn’t work: She kept screaming and screaming. He shot her again, and again, and again—nine times in total. And then he waited in the laundry room. When his stepfather arrived home and walked past his hiding place, Caudle shot him in the back of the head. He was still alive, so Caudle shot him again, in the head. When he wouldn’t stop breathing, Caudle stuffed ear plugs in his nostrils and drug him to the bedroom, where his mother’s body was. Then he did the laundry, played an online game, and took a shower.

The next morning, he drove his stepfather’s 2008 Chevy Silverado pickup to Monte Vista High School. Later that day, he was picked up for driving erratically in Fairplay. The bodies were found sometime that same day and authorities interrogated Caudle for hours. His maternal grandmother was present, but she spent much of the time crying in a corner. Occasionally, Caudle would hug her and cry himself.

His sentencing hearing lasted only two days. Two specialists were cited as calling his case of child abuse the worst they’d ever seen. The prosecutor didn’t contest that Caudle had post-traumatic stress disorder. Witnesses described how Caudle was abused; one compared his mother to a Nazi prison-camp guard. None of it mattered. Before the judge could sentence him, Caudle accepted a plea bargain sentence: 22 years behind bars.

Could a teenager even understand a plea bargain? Was this battered-person syndrome? Would he receive the services he needed in an adult prison? How could a double-murderer be let off with anything less? Caudle’s case inflamed the direct file debate. DAs in favor of direct file cited it—and still cite it—as an excellent example of why direct file is necessary, while opponents like Dvorchak point to the very same case and say direct file is anathema to the very concept of juvenile justice, and for that matter, justice and due process of any kind. What happens when he gets out—a boy-turned-man in prison? Dvorchak and the DAs made the media rounds, arguing both sides.

Ind’s and Caudle’s cases are just the start, Dvorchak says. She talks about a boy who punched someone at school, received a juvenile court summons, and arrived to find out the DA had filed a “notice of intent to direct file.” (The judge appointed an attorney immediately.) Then there was the 17-year-old who walked away from a juvenile detention center on a field trip and was direct filed for his “escape.” The DAs offered him six years. (An adult who runs from a similar facility might get one or two years.) The charges were eventually dropped, but only after the teenager’s attorney started asking about that sentencing discrepancy.

There are more complicated cases, like the kid who walked into a shop with a nonfunctioning gun. The clerk wasn’t even scared and just told the boy to go home. The teen did. But he continued this behavior—in Boulder, Adams, and Weld counties. When the teen was caught, the DA in Boulder didn’t direct file on him, but the DAs in Adams and Weld counties did. “Most people think direct file is only serious homicides, and that’s actually a pretty small percentage,” Dvorchak explains. “It’s under 20 percent.”

Most direct filed kids never get a trial; many juveniles take plea bargains instead. Less than five percent of all direct file cases since 1999 have gone to jury. In other words, in 95 percent of direct file cases, the DAs choose the charge, venue, and—thanks to mandatory sentencing—the punishment. And all this “due process” is without the input of a judge or jury. “DAs are not direct filing so that they can have jury trials in adult court,” Dvorchak says. “The child has no ability to appeal that. There is no mechanism to test the prosecutor’s choice of putting you in the juvenile court or the adult court.”

Crazy kids. That’s been the refrain for generations, it seems, as adults ponder why perfectly normal children turn into irrational, irresponsible, and irritating teens. Aristotle said teenagers act like drunken men. Mark Twain called them “frivolous” and quipped that teens should be kept in barrels for the duration of adolescence. For parents, it can be a trying time of crashed vehicles, curfew violations, and skipped classes. It’s particularly frightening because, at a time when the consequences of those actions escalate, science says that—empirically—teenagers just don’t understand.

The human brain is almost adult-size at age six. And you don’t need to be a parent to know that a six-year-old does not act like an adult. It takes almost 20 more years for a brain’s function to catch up with its size. During the 1990s, a series of research studies, including a decade-long National Institutes of Health (NIH) project tracked teen minds. The results were shocking: The brain doesn’t evolve or grow like other parts of the body. Instead, certain areas develop over time, like an empty house that is slowly painted, furnished, and lived in. The frontal lobe is the finishing touch, but it might be the most important as it controls planning, suppressing impulses, and understanding consequences.